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Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a Giveaway

Author: Betty Smith
Reason for Reading: IRL Book Club, Classics Challenge
Rating: 5/5

In the foreword that Anna Quindlan wrote for this edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she sums it up thusly:

"In its nearly 500 pages, nothing much happens. Of course, that's not really accurate: Everything that can happen in life happens, from birth and death to marriage and bigamy.... The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human."

The main protagonist of this book, Francie Nolan, is a girl living in the poor tenements of Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. Her mother, Katie, works as a janitress to support her, her brother Neeley and her father Johnny, a happy-go-lucky singing waiter who has had the misfortune in life of becoming more attached to the bottle than regular work.

The book is about Francie, about her family, about the course her life takes her. It is about growing up, about surviving, about life. Running as a theme throughout the course of the book is the poverty that Francie lived in.

There was half of a cold broiled lobster, five stone cold fried oysters, an inch jar of caviar and a wedge of Roquefort cheese. The children didn't like the lobster and the cold oysters had no taste and the caviar seemed too salty. But they were so hungry that they ate everything on the table and digested it too, during the night. They could have digested nails had they been able to chew them.

Francie earns a little pocket money with her brother collecting junk, and the feeling of a nickel to buy candy makes her feel wealthy.

Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floorwalker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say, yes, buy it and show him a thing or two. Money was a wonderful thing, she decided.

Betty Smith herself grew up in Brooklyn during the same era, born five years to the day before her protagonist. I'm not sure how much of the book is autobiographical, but a particular scene made me wonder. Francie, who has always gotten A's on her essays, is trying to reason with her teacher over the recent stories she has written about her father and their life. Her teacher has given her C's on the papers, and explains it is because of her subject matter.

"But poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn't write about them."

Francie's frustration when the teacher tells her to go burn her writings causes her to go home and burn everything else she has written except for the stories in question. I would love to know if this or something similar actually happened to Betty Smith as she worked on this book.

Although my description thus far makes this sound like a grim book, it is far from that. It is full of both parts funny and sad vignettes from the life of the Nolan family. Francie's wild aunt Sissy always brings about humorous situations. Sissy works at a rubber factory where some rubber toys are made as a front, but the real product is a completely different kind of "rubbers". While watching Francie and Neeley, she inadvertantly leaves them a few of what they believe to be balloons. When their mother comes homes and spies the "balloons" hanging out the window, she is so humilated, plans are immediately made to move and Sissy is disinvited from their home. But Sissy is so lively, so fun, that the invitation is extended again soon enough.

Sissy quickly found her way into my heart as one of my favorite characters. In fact, my favorite line about Sissy is:

Sissy, who was done with her wild past, and who should have been settling down into the calm that precedes satisfied middle age, threw the family into a turmoil by falling madly in love with the John to whom she had been married for more than five years. Not only that, but she got herself widowed, divorced, married and pregnant-all in ten day's time.

In contrast, Francie's down-to-earth mother, Katie, keeps the family grounded throughout the many hardships they face. Despite their deprivations, she insists that they all save their extra pennies in a tin can bank to buy a piece of land for their very own someday. And she fights especially hard for her children to be educated. When they are on the verge of starvation, Katie pretends with the children that they are on an expedition to the North Pole, until they get the money to make it through another week.

We go through with Francie as she grows up, falls in love, and learns what it really means to be a woman. I was so delighted with the book that even when it ended with a nice bow to tie everything up, I wasn't annoyed. I just wanted to know what comes next for Francie and her family.

At times this book reminded me of parts of The Bluest Eye and Angela's Ashes, but I can tell you that of the three memoirs of extreme poverty, I would pick this book anytime. Highly recommended.

Other reviews:
Trish's Reading Nook

Unrelated Note:
Do you love free books?? Trish from Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading? is hosting a ginormous contest to give away 14 books to up to five people. You can earn entries by leaving comments on the post and advertising it on your blog (as I am here).


Chelsea said...

This is one of my favorite books. It's just so dang goooood.

Anonymous said...

I love this book too. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is also great and follows the main character from birth to death.

DesLily said...

I may have to read this some day.. of course I am old enough to remember the old movie made of it and I think I tend to not read books that I really enjoyed as a movie. Maybe I'm afraid I won't like the movie anymore?? ah well, glad you enjoyed this so much!

Trish said...

Does this mean that you finished in time for your book club meeting? It was a close call for me, but I made it. :) This one reminded me of Angela's Ashes as well, but I agree that this was better.

Andi said...

I haven't read this one, but EVERYONE tells me I should. I'm glad you liked it. I think I'll be picking it up sooner than later.

trish said...

This book is on my TBR pile...I want to read it so bad! I need to get sick for a couple weeks so I can make a dent in the books I haven't read. :-)

Good luck on the contest, by the way. :D

Kim L said...


anonymous-I havent heard of that one.

deslily-I can understand how you feel, although I do think this was a good one!

trish-yes I did! I'm glad you did too :-)

andi-I hope you like it! It was a good one.

trish-heehee, I get so much reading done when I'm sick.

Becca said...

Aw, I thought you were giving away a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! I know this is a classic, but I've actually never read it. I guess now I'll have to add it to my TBR list. Thanks for the great review.

Debi said...

Oh Kim, what a wonderful, wonderful review! I've long known I "should" read this book, but I've frankly never been sure I wanted to. But Trish's review earlier this week convinced me to really do need to pick it up. If she hadn't just convinced me, you sure would have!

Kim L said...

becca-ha, at least I got your attention

debi-oh goodie, I hope you like it!